Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Cello Sonatas by Bridge, Britten, Khachaturian, and Shostakovich

Written for the San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series. Shostakovich Cello Sonata note previously written for Tippet Rise Art Center. Not to be reprinted without permission.

The four cello sonatas on today’s program are all interconnected. Frank Bridge was Benjamin Britten’s teacher, Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich were friends across the Iron Curtain, and Shostakovich taught Karen Khachaturian. They are also linked by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007), who recorded the Bridge and Shostakovich sonatas with Britten on piano, and to whom the Britten and Khachaturian sonatas are dedicated. Altogether, these pieces represent a sort of English-Russian extended family spanning the First World War through the 1960s—music that carried forward the expressive intensity and melodic sensibility of Romanticism, but sharply cut, angularly shaped, and harmonically unleashed.

Frank Bridge: Sonata in D minor

Embed from Getty Images

Frank Bridge spent the first quarter of his career primarily as a string player. His father was a working-class violinist and bandleader in Brighton, England, and Bridge went into the family business by the time he was a teenager. In 1899 he earned a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, an education that lifted him from seaside theater orchestras into London string quartets. He even subbed on viola with the touring Joachim Quartet in 1906—playing with Joseph Joachim himself, the elder violinist who had once been Johannes Brahms’s friend and closest collaborator.

Bridge studied composition with the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, part of the generation of Stanford students that included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. By 1912, Bridge began limiting his playing to focus more on composition and conducting. Many different influences are apparent in his music: late Romanticism, modernism, touches of English Pastoralism and French Impressionism. But there is also something more: an individual voice with a compelling story to tell. Benjamin Britten recalled two of Bridge’s teaching principles. “One was that you should find yourself and be true to what you found. The other— obviously connected with the first—was his scrupulous attention to good technique, the business of saying clearly what was in one’s mind.”

Bridge wrote the Cello Sonata in D minor during the First World War—it was a slow, multi-year effort from 1913–17. Friends reported that he was in deep despair over the state of the world and suffering from insomnia. The piece was finally premiered in 1917 by cellist Felix Salmond and pianist Harold Samuel at Wigmore Hall. After Bridge died in 1941, his music was not often performed, but Britten strove to revive his old teacher’s works, recording the Cello Sonata with Rostropovich in 1969.

Cast in two movements, the sonata takes off with a wondrously winding melody, immediately repeated higher, then extended to rise even further. The feeling of flexibility and offset between the instruments comes from an old Brahmsian rhythmic trick of three-against-two, creating a roiling slow-motion groove beneath this wild, exploratory music.

The second movement begins hazily, more spacious than the first. Slowly it moves forward into a muted passage, Andante con moto, where a mournful melody takes form. Then a surprise: the piano launches into fast music, Molto allegro e agitato. Another composer might have separated this into a third movement finale, but Bridge wanted it intermingled. The first movement melody returns in a coda, newly focused and emboldened.

Benjamin Britten: Sonata in C major, Opus 65

Embed from Getty Images

One of the most basic principles of musical expression is that major keys feel happy and minor keys feel sad. Of course, in all but the simplest music, emotions are more complex, and many feelings are possible

in any key. But when you see a title like Sonata in C major—the home key without any sharps or flats—you generally expect a straightforward, sunny piece. Not so with Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata: from the first measure, he sets it in an unstable, steely world littered with added pitches. In fact, short of the finale’s last two bars, there is so little pure C major that one wonders if the title wasn’t intended as a joke, or to intentionally mislead.

Britten first met Rostropovich at the September 1960 British premiere of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in London. The two composers sat together during the concert. Afterwards, Rostropovich—a prolific commissioner— asked Britten for a sonata, and so he set to work, finishing the piece the following January. At the first read-through, both Britten and Rostropovich were nervous to be working together, the cellist drinking “four or five” whiskies to fortify himself. They premiered the sonata in July 1961 at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, recording it two weeks later for Decca Records.

The first movement, Dialogo, begins haltingly in single notes between the cello and piano. The inspiration for this dialogue might be international as well as interpersonal: Britten was a pacifist and supporter of nuclear disarmament, and being an English composer making music with a Soviet cellist in the early ’60s may well have suggested musical détente. Ripping into a section marked animato, the two instruments seem determined to play together, no matter how tumultuously. Then they try a more tranquil approach but arrive back at an aggravated version of the opening conversation. One step forward, two steps back. Finally, they come together in a peaceful coda.

The second movement scherzo offers a new take on these skittish exchanges, this time with the cello playing in hair- raising pizzicato. The third movement, an elegy, drifts through a clouded landscape, followed by a jagged march that dissolves into thin air. The perpetual motion finale builds off the thematic material of the first movement: the cello and piano twist together before finally hitting the long-promised C major, just in time for the piece to end.

Karen Khachaturian: Sonata

Karen Khachaturian was born in Moscow in 1920, the nephew of the more famous Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903–78). The younger Khachaturian studied piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory beginning in 1938, interrupted by wartime service writing patriotic songs for the Red Army. He returned to the Conservatory in 1945, studying with Shostakovich, Vissarion Shebalin, and Nicolai Miaskovsky. Working in the Soviet music system and winning several state prizes, Khachaturian wrote concert and film music, as well as Cipollino, an endearing children’s ballet starring an onion in a fairy-tale world of fruits and vegetables. He later taught at his alma mater, where he chaired the orchestration department.

Khachaturian wrote his Cello Sonata in 1966 and dedicated it to Rostropovich. A Russian archives recording reveals him giving a rather raw performance (possibly the premiere)—which is still the only available recording of this rarity.

In terms of big-picture design, two of the movements reference vocal music in their titles (Recitativo and Aria) while the other two reference traditional keyboard forms (Inventio and Toccata). The first movement opens darkly with the cello lurking alone. Eventually the piano enters with tolling chords, adding harmonic underpinning and punctuation like that of an operatic accompaniment. The second movement, Inventio, begins without pause—the contrapuntal writing of J.S. Bach and sarcastic grotesqueries of Shostakovich are clear influences. The slow movement, Aria, has a sort of limping circularity, starting simply, then growing impassioned. Nearing the end, the cellist is given a passage of percussive pizzicato, undercutting the otherwise lyrical nature of the Aria. The last movement, Toccata, starts with block- chord stabs in the piano over which the cello aggressively romps.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata in D minor,
Op. 40

Embed from Getty Images

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata is a relatively early work, written in 1934, before his serious political troubles with Stalin. His worries at the time were simpler and more intimate: two years into his marriage to Nina Varzar, he fell in love with a twenty-year-old student named Yelena Konstantinovskaya. Though he and Nina reputedly had an open marriage, this was outside the bounds of their agreement. They divorced, but soon remarried after learning she was pregnant with their first child. “Remaining in Leningrad. Nina pregnant. Remarried,” he telegrammed a friend. In a letter, he admitted, “I have only now realized and fathomed what a remarkable woman she is.”

During their brief divorce, he wrote the Cello Sonata to fulfill a request from Viktor Kubatsky, the principal cellist of the Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich began work on the piece in August 1934 and premiered it with Kubatsky on December 25.

Shostakovich felt that Soviet composers neglected chamber music in favor of orchestral music, and the Cello Sonata was partly an effort to counter that tendency. Stylistically, it is a bit of an outlier for Shostakovich: classical in form, more subdued than much of his early output, but still without the harrowing atmosphere of his later style. Critics divide on whether his affair and divorce are reflected in the piece: some think his passionate romance with Konstantinovskaya shines through, others are surprised he could write such whimsical, lyrical music at such a fraught moment in his life.

The first movement is in sonata form, modeled on earlier music and unusual for Shostakovich. Still, there are surprises: tempos grind to a halt at dramatic transitions, and in the end the main theme is transformed into a dirge. The second movement is a raucous scherzo, making extensive use of glissando harmonics. The slow movement is dusky and resonant, with an endlessly unfurling cello line that grows more and more discomforted: if Shostakovich grieves for his marriage in this piece, it might be here. The brisk finale is filled with dense counterpoint which is repeatedly brought back to a rigid dance theme.

In 1956, Shostakovich accompanied Rostropovich in a benchmark recording of the Sonata, and when Shostakovich couldn’t join Rostropovich for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1964, Britten took his Russian friend’s place at the keys.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.